LeBron won his fourth ring: What does that mean for his basketball legacy?

LeBron James of the Cleveland Cavaliers is pictured in a game against the Washington Wizards at Verizon Center on Nov. 21, 2014. Keith Allison / Wikimedia Commons

One on one: LeBron James and Donald Trump

 At a recent Trump campaign rally, the now-outgoing U.S. president bashed the NBA and its superstars for protesting racial injustices and kneeling during the national anthem. LeBron James, the superstar face of the NBA and a harsh critic of the Trump administration, became the target of the crowd’s frustrations as they chanted “LeBron James sucks!” Their anger was a response to James’ criticisms of the president, including in 2017, when he called Trump a “bum” and remarked that “going to the White House was a great honor until [Trump] showed up!”  Now that James has helped to defeat Trump in the 2020 presidential election by working to stop voter suppression, closely following his fourth championship win in the same year, it’s time to reevaluate his basketball legacy.  

 

Remember 2016?

With 10.6 seconds left in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals, James drained a free throw to put the Cleveland Cavaliers up by four and seal the game in the clutch against league MVP Stephen Curry’s Golden State Warriors. After making the shot, James speedily walked over to his bench to encourage each teammate. The Cavs were on the brink of making history, coming back from a 3–1 game deficit to possibly win the series. On the final possession, Golden State threw up desperate threes as James and his teammates excitedly celebrated on the court; the comeback was complete. 

Why talk about the 2016 championship four years later? Because in the 2020 season, after the NBA finished the playoffs in a coronavirus bubble, James won his fourth championship and NBA Finals MVP.  After his 17th season in the NBA, James has accomplished the feats and compiled the stats that prompt pundits to ask: Is he the greatest basketball player of all time? In fact, the conversation should have been over after the 2016 finals. His accomplishments since then have only widened the distance between James and anyone else who might lay or claim to the title.

 

Expectation for greatness

When James was drafted first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Draft, the expectations surrounding him were already staggeringly high. In his junior year at St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, Sports Illustrated  featured him on its cover with the proclamation the “Chosen One.” Yet, James stood steadfast in the face of pressure, winning three division championships for his school and twice earning the title of Gatorade National Basketball Player of the Year. After the draft, the hype was sky high. Many questioned how an 18-year-old could handle such fame and the burden to carry a franchise that had not made it past the first round in the NBA playoffs for 10 straight seasons. No matter, after just four seasons James took the Cavs to the finals, where they lost to a far superior San Antonio Spurs team.

James continued to excel for the Cavaliers, winning league MVP in 2009 and 2010. However, the Cleveland roster had major deficiencies, with no second star to help James get past the elite multi-star teams in the East like the Big Three Celtics. In a controversial move,  James took his talents to the Miami Heat in 2010, where his new team lost in the finals against the Dallas Mavericks. Many see this loss as James’ greatest failure. The Heat dropped a two-game lead against the Mavericks to lose 4–2 overall in the series. Yes, James  could have done more to win that year, but that shouldn’t disqualify him from the “greatest of all time” debate. If anything it adds a note of complexity to his evolution as a basketball great. A pattern began to emerge as James used his failures to redouble his determination to win. 

 

Becoming King James

After two consecutive championship years with the Miami Heat in 2012 and 2013 and two finals MVPs, the conversation regarding James’ place in the greatest basketball player pantheon truly began. After four straight finals runs with the Heat, James surprised the sports world by deciding to return home to Cleveland, now enhanced by the presence of Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. He returned to his home state of Ohio to bring the people their first major sports title since 1964.  Yet the ultimate prize still remained elusive; the Warriors lost the 2015 finals after Irving and Love both suffered injuries that kept them sidelined for most of the series. James led all players in scoring in five of the six games and dominating rebounding in three of the six games.

Then, in 2016, the Cavaliers defeated the Golden State Warriors — a team that broke the NBA’s single-season win record previously held by the 1995–96 Chicago Bulls (72–10). James secured another finals MVP and the Cavs became the first team in NBA history to overcome a 3–1 deficit to win the finals.

To fortify themselves after this loss, in 2017 the Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, a 2014 league MVP, four-time scoring champ and consensus top-five player in the NBA at that time. With this powerhouse, the Warriors were able to defeat James’ Cavs in the next two NBA finals. Even so, James put up remarkable numbers.

After four additional seasons with the Cavaliers, James then joined one of the fabled franchises in NBA history: the Los Angeles Lakers. Fallen from their glory, the Lakers had failed for the last five seasons to make the playoffs, consistently recording among the worst records in the league. Yet after just two years under James’ wing, the Lakers won a championship in 2020. 

The pattern is clear: LeBron has brought championships to three different franchises. Two years after his arrival, the Heat (2012), the Cavs (2016) and the Lakers (2020) have all won championships. Is there a player in any professional sport who can match that accomplishment, consistently turning losing teams into contenders? James knows how to win and reach the finals, an achievement he has accomplished in nine of the last 11 seasons. 

 

 LeBron and Jordan

In basketball’s modern era, LeBron James and Michael Jordan are the only players with the resumes to contend for the status of “the greatest.” But while acknowledging Jordan’s stature, is there really any contest? Sure, Jordan catapulted the NBA into international fame and went 6–0 in the finals, but his competition was mediocre. According to the NBA, the teams that James faced until 2018 all ranked in the top 36 NBA finals teams of all time. On average, they have a clear advantage over the teams Jordan faced. In fact, the worst team James ever faced in the finals, the 2007 Spurs, still ranks higher than four of the six teams Jordan faced in the finals. While James’ finals record may have been worse, Jordan played inferior opponents and came into the finals with an ELO rating, which is “a measure of team strength based on head-to-head results, margin of victory and quality of opponent, ” 64 points greater than his opponent. Meanwhile, James entered with a 63-point deficit in the same category. 

Another knock on James is his ability to close out games; the rap against him is that he falters in the final minutes. However, this is hardly true. In fact, James holds the record for postseason buzzer beaters, and, when facing a chance to eliminate his opponent, boasts a record of 14–10, or a winning percentage of 58.3. Meanwhile Jordan only went 5–7, or 41.6%. Moreover, throughout James’ career so far, he has already accrued more points, rebounds, assists and blocks than Jordan. Indeed, James has scored the most postseason points in NBA history and is second in assists and sixth in rebounding. He is also third in all-time points and may overtake Karl Malone and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar before his career ends.

Yes, James is 4–6 in the finals and Jordan is 6–0, but how did Jordan’s team perform without him? When Jordan took a year off in 1993, teammate Scottie Pippen took the Bulls to the Eastern Conference finals where they were one game away from reaching the championship. On the other hand, when James doesn’t play, his teams are 23–49 (until 2018) without him. Clearly, Jordan had a better overall team to play against easier opponents, while James had to face modern analytical schemes and some of the greatest competition of all time.  

 

Legacy: On and off the court

Arguing over who is the greatest of all time may ultimately be a futile exercise. James played in a different era than those who might challenge his “greatest of all time” qualifications. The modern NBA puts a microscope on every play, both on and off the court. But the clincher securing James’ legacy may lie in the unique combination of both. In addition to his notable charitable activities (James has sponsored schools and funded education in poorer communities), he has become a major political force, a champion for social justice and a real player in the world of political campaigns. If “greatest ever” speaks to broader social impact as well as monumental athletic accomplishment, like Muhammed Ali, James’ special place in history seems assured.

Correction: A previous version of this article said that LeBron just concluded his 16th season in the NBA, when in fact he has just concluded his 17th season. The article has been updated to reflect this change. The Daily regrets this error.


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